Gold surges. Copper soars. Oil spikes. But no panic.
Copper at $6,000 per ton. Gold at $600 an ounce. Oil persistently above $60 per barrel.Skip to next paragraph
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The last time these key commodities enjoyed such a concurrent boom, inflation ruled, Ronald Reagan was headed to the White House, and the economy was in the tank.
So do today's run-ups in metals and oil prices signal trouble ahead?
Quite the opposite, some economists say. In a humming world economy, supplies of some key raw materials are struggling to keep pace with demand. That's no surprise. Likewise, investors, seeking profits at a time when stocks and bonds lack luster, are plowing money into silver and gold.
That means higher prices for everything from jewelry to aluminum aircraft parts. But for now, these represent a burden of added costs, not a crisis, economists say. The one potential exception is oil.
"I think it's clear from the economic data that this is a global economic advance taking place," says Dennis Gartman, editor of the Gartman Letter on investing. In such an environment, commodity prices rise, he says, and "why should they not?"
Of key concern is energy, where prices are now high enough that a further spike could put global growth in jeopardy. Rebels in Nigeria or a standoff over Iran's nuclear program are scenarios that keep some analysts awake.
In the long run, higher prices will drive new production and the development for alternative fuels. But in the short run, the oil market is tight, with little spare capacity in the event of a new disruption. And whereas a temporary scarcity of copper or titanium would affect certain products, an energy shortfall directly affects every business and household.
Oil prices have surged in recent days to nearly $70 a barrel, while US consumers are reeling under a government forecast of $2.62 or more per gallon of gasoline this summer. Yet for a year or more, the US and global economies have stayed buoyant in the face of rising oil costs. It would probably take a major price shock to change that, analysts say.
Even as energy prices help guide the economy's path, other commodities tend to react to economic strength or weakness. And lately, the pattern has been strength.
"All the industrial countries are riding the same growth train," says Jason Schenker, an economist who tracks commodities at Wachovia Corp., a banking and investment firm based in Charlotte, N.C.
This adds to fast-rising demand from developing nations from India to Brazil. China has become the biggest factor behind rising demand. It now accounts for 25 to 35 percent of the world's use of aluminum, copper, iron, steel, and coal, according to research by Morgan Stanley.
Next to energy, the hottest commodities have been metals, used for industrial as well as investment purposes.
Gold and silver have glittered as it becomes easier for small investors to jump on the bandwagon. "Exchange-traded funds" now make buying those metals as easy as buying a share of Alcoa. (The aluminum company just reported a doubling of profits over the past year.)
The commodities boom hasn't reached all sectors. Fats and vegetable oils fell over the year ended in March, according to World Bank data. But for many basics, prices are up. Sugar prices have soared, for example, thanks to rising demand for use in alternative fuels.
All this adds up to the biggest commodities boom in more than two decades.